Constant Editing, Revision

Earlier today a friend did me the service of critiquing my blog. If I understood him correctly, he had three major concerns: 1) That I seemed to be claiming that Buddhism was not a religion. 2) That if I wanted to be scientific then I had failed because my purview was too large and I was being too subjective. 3) That I made statements that were off-putting.

I write this blog in order to present my nascent thoughts to a generalized sangha, members of which I hope will rub away some of my corners by pointing out to me my errors of interpretation, or remarks of mine that might be misconstrued, or any other of my many failings they might find here in. So, my friend’s comments were and are welcomed, as would anyone’s be, as a useful spur to correct any of my errors of fact or clarity. Having been critiqued, I am needful of addressing his concerns so as to allow other readers a clearer view of my intentions. If nothing else I hope that this kind of exchange will inspire readers to more easily comment on any errors or vagaries they might see. Please do.

1) I do not think that Buddhism is not a religion. Of Course Buddhism is a religion. Religions are what the believers of them think they are. And I am perfectly happy to see Buddhism as a religion. In fact that is the way I came to it; liking its non-theocratic nature. Not to mention that Buddhism seemed to me to be more logical and concise than Catholicism (my mother religion) in its basic assumptions. In this blog I am trying to find out if Buddhism can be approached usefully from a scientific modality. In other words, my question is, Can Buddhism be a science? I am not claiming any success at proving the matter; this blog is merely a record of my mind’s processes as I think about the question. I do not yet promise anything rigorous. One observation may be useful: I believe that the apparent opposition of Buddhism as belief and Buddhism as science would be a duality and thus, in Buddhist terms, an illusion.

2) Of course I am not being scientific. I am merely trying, subjectively, to grope towards such a possibility. Trying to focus in. Recording every thought that seems relevant. Probably going down lots of blind alleys. No authority here. Know-nothing Zen.

3) The specific comment I made that was off-putting to my friend, who worried that I would lose readers, was my saying that every person I had ever met who did zen was improved by it. My friend said my statement condoned so-called zen masters sleeping with their students. I did not mean to imply this. My statement was not meant to say that anyone who had studied zen to any degree was instantly perfected. Nor did I mean to imply that anyone studying zen was improved to an equal degree over all aspects of their character and for all time. All I meant was that zen improves people to some degree in various parts of their character. Areas of a person that are more screwed up are more difficult to correct no matter what course of therapy, drug or religion they embark upon. The benefit of zen is that it does help. The question of a person in powerful position, whether a Roshi, abbot, or teacher, who abuses their power is a big topic, one with many facets, each one of which I will have to comment upon further.


The Ego’s Narration of Suffering

Speaking about suffering in a general way makes me remember that, like every other one of us poor unrealized beings, I have the habit of a persistent narrative of suffering. What I mean is that I have spent a great deal of time telling myself (and others) the story of my suffering. The insidious thing about doing this is that retelling a narrative is the same as practising a narrative. Worse, we, I, all of us, tend to identify with both our narrative and with our suffering. We believe that our narrative of suffering is identical with ourselves. When we fall into the habit of persistently retelling our suffering we strengthen (through practice) our belief that our narrative is identical to the self. (Exploring our suffering with someone qualified to help one stay on track so we can find a way out of our suffering is okay. Retelling is not exploration.)

We have an ego that says I,I,I,I, me, me, mine. But the world isn’t all about ‘I’. The world has its own ideas. The world is so complex, we are incapable of understanding it. The best we can achieve is some limited theory about the world. Yet the ego insists that it should get its own way in spite of not being able to see reality clearly enough to make sensible, workable demands. Being unable to see the future, the past, or the present, the ego can’t plan well enough to get its own way; the best the ego can make happen is some variously unsatisfactory, pale imitation of the desired thing. But the ego never stops trying. And in not getting its own way the ego suffers. And in suffering, the ego tells a tale of how unfair the world is being to it.

We identify ourselves with our ego. Our ego tells us that the ego, ‘I’, is all we are. The ego is a long list of desires frustrated and complaints thereof. But the ego is a construct and we could do well without letting it run us. But who are we without the ego? For our whole life we have practised the belief that we are only ego. And if the ego is nothing but the idea that we unfairly sufferer because we do not get our ego’s deserved desires then we are in a terrible bind: to give up on our ego-based narrative of suffering is to give up what we, our egos, claims is the totality of our being. The fear is that if we give up the ego, if we do away with our narrative of suffering, we will no longer exist. We will disappear. What else can we do except continue to reiterate and believe in the narrative of our personal suffering.

My narration of suffering began with migraine headaches. I started getting them when I was two years old. By the age of five, I was well into a regular technique I had developed to try to alleviate my suffering. I screamed my head off, trying to get my mother to come to me. I don’t exactly know what I thought my mother could do for me. Nothing ever worked to relieve the pain. The headaches would run their course. So if nothing relieved the pain, the only reason I can think that I continued pleading for help is that I wanted sympathy, someone to say “Oh, yes. It is completely unfair that you have a headache.” I wanted someone to tell me that I was so important that everyone wanted to hear all about my suffering and would do everything in their power to fix me. Or maybe I wanted to blame someone else for my suffering. Maybe I was punishing my mother for her not saving me from pain.

Over the years I developed all sorts of attendant pains that I could add to my list of suffering, a list that identified the ‘me’ in the story of the ‘I’ that I clung to.

At some point I started to understand that by reiterating the story of poor little old me, I generated three kinds of responses in the people around me. Sympathy, irritation or indifference – none of which had any real, lasting affect on my suffering, except possibly to make it worse. If my suffering-narrative did not convince the world that my suffering was absolutely significant, what good was it? If the world didn’t seem to be in the business of taking my suffering away, the inescapable conclusion was that if I wanted to end my suffering I would have to do it myself.

Yes, the world was generally willing to try to cure any of my physical pains, but suffering is different than pain. Pain is a biological signal warning us that something is going wrong with our physical being. Suffering is thinking that pain is unfair. Suffering is thinking that you are being treated badly by fate. Suffering is blaming oneself or others for your misfortune. Suffering is hanging on to the fact that something irritating happened to you three days ago and letting it poison the moment right now.

Evidence suggests that everyone gets some share of physical pain. Zen has always said that suffering is optional. It took me about forty years of listening before I could hear it said.

All my life I had tried to understand the workings of the world. I had the unconscious belief that if I could understand everything, I would be able to do things so perfectly right nothing bad would ever happen again, anywhere, to me or to any one else. I wandered the aisles looking for anyone who would listen to me and try to impress them with how much I knew. (Or maybe I was trying to convince myself?) If I knew so much then shouldn’t people listen to what I had to say about how they should live their lives? Nothing I ever learned helped me relieve the general suffering. I just irritated people. The failure of my learning became a large part of my narrative of suffering.

About three years ago my daughter told me she didn’t like the way I argued. I can’t remember the details of her complaint anymore, but out of the complaint came a realization. I can only describe it as the sudden and complete understanding that I knew nothing. I suddenly realized that it was literally impossible for me to really know anything (never mind everything). I fell into the first depression I had ever felt. How was I going to fulfil my responsibility for making myself and every one around me feel good?

A month went by and all I could do was sit there, stunned, staring the truth in the face. I know nothing! I know nothing! Then an odd thing happened. I woke up one morning and realized that I actually liked not knowing anything. A huge weight had been removed from my back. I wasn’t responsible for everything. I couldn’t be. I was only responsible for my own acts, thoughts, and feelings. I was only little in comparison to the immensity of the universe. I could not be expected to know much. I would make lots of mistakes, but as long as I was willing to take responsibility for them, all would be well. Wave suffering good-bye.

So I there I was, thinking I had arrived at a place where I wasn’t going to suffer any more. Silly me, to think I would get off so easily. If we got off easy, we wouldn’t have what is called zen practice. Practising zen is practising to notice the suffering-narrative when it arises so we can let it float away, without hanging on to it. (But never forget, if you have your hand in the fire, to take it out.)

Suffering still raised its head every once and a while, but armed with the knowledge of knowing nothing, I found I could pull myself out of the slough of despond more quickly each time I fell in. Suffering no longer was a indication of how unfair the world was to ‘poor old me’, it became merely an indicator that I was looking at the world, or myself, in an unhelpful way (more on that later). The narration of suffering no longer had a full time grip on me.

But then, surprise surprise, I discovered that the problem (of constantly narrating my suffering in order to develop the ‘I’) had simply transferred itself to a deeper layer of my psyche and had became subtler, trickier. The old ego was not about to easily give up and disappear. Now my storyline became: I’m the kind of person who finds pain intellectually interesting in that the human body was sure capable of thinking up all sorts of weird feelings.

I discovered this new complex after attending a three day sesshin. Lots of pain in the back while sitting. I tried to bull my way through the pain when the smart thing would have been to sit in a chair for a while. And then, after a six hour trip driving the car home, I couldn’t lift my leg out of the car without picking the leg up with my hands. I immediately told everyone all about it. How interesting, I said, convinced that I was only bringing up the topic, ‘My Pain Leading to Lameness’, because pain was such an peculiar, intellectual problem.

Everyone was very solicitous of my well-being. Two weeks later I was still receiving enquiries about the health of my back. How kind and considerate everyone truly was. Giving. Concerned. How humbled I felt. My tricky ego had once again involved me with practising (albeit in a manner less transparent to myself) the illusion of the significant ‘I’ who suffers. I almost felt embarrassed for using up the good sympathetic energy sent my way. I could only bow and thank everyone for their good concern. I would rather not have solicited for it. After all, nothing bad had happened, beyond a minor inconvenience. My back was sore for a few hours. In fact, I learned a good thing from the pain: if I start hurting while meditating, sit in a chair for a while. But rather than being embarrassed (more suffering) for having fallen into another reiteration of my suffer-narrative, I decided I would take the occasion to learn another lesson about how to avoid practising my suffering identity.

I will not tell myself or others anymore suffering-narrative episodes.
I will not tell myself or others anymore about my pain.
I will not tell myself or others anymore about my pain.
Etc. Etc.

When Hogen spoke at the end of the sesshin, he asked everyone to put up their hand if they had experienced physical pain while sitting. Everyone put up their hand. “Good,” he said. “Then no one needs to mention it again.”

The Four NobleTruths

It just occurred to me that if I am to understand Zen, it might be a good idea to go to the source. That would be the words of the Buddha. The thing that made the Buddha so important was the deep realization he had while sitting under the Bodhi tree. In order to offer others the benefit of his realization, his way to enlightenment, he formalized what he had learned and called the information the Four Noble Truths.

A number of red flags might have come up for you because of my rather plebeian description of an event and a teaching that has had such a profound affect on history. First I speak about
the Buddha as if he were just another person and not a god. Well, the Buddha was not a god. He was just another person, specifically a local prince named Siddhartha. After his realization he was called Shakyamuni Siddhārtha Gautama. Buddha isn’t the man’s name. Buddha is a title that means one has realized the truth about existence. Siddhartha was called the Buddha because he was supposed to be the first person of the present age to have had the important realization. There have been other Buddhas in past ages. In future ages there is supposed to be more Buddhas. But given that anyone can realize their Buddha nature (supposedly many have done so in this age), and given that everyone, down deep, has Buddha nature, what’s all the big excitement that makes people raise the Buddha onto a religious plinth and form a religion called Buddhism. Wow, big topic. I’ll get into the whole thing about Buddhism as a religion later. The other red flag some of you might be seeing concerns the word ‘enlightenment’. It now has connotations in the west that are far too elitist and metaphysical to be acceptable. My purpose here is to bring the connotation of the word enlightenment down a peg or two. Give the word back the meaning of a room being made visible by throwing open a window to the daylight. More on enlightenment later. For now let’s look scientifically, or if not scientifically then analytically, at the Buddha realization as it was formalized by Shakyamuni Siddhartha Gautama.

1- suffering exists.
2- desires are the cause of suffering
3- one can attain the cessation of suffering
4- the eightfold path is the way to end suffering.

These four points when fully understood and realized at all levels of being is, essentially, enlightenment, and, therefore, the root of zen. If you get these four points stitched into your life then you are enlightened, realized, a zen master. Nothing else to it. Good luck.

Let’s take the points one by one. This post will deal only with the first.

Suffering exists
A no-brainer. Of course suffering exists. Walk down the street and you can see it all around you. People suffer all the time. Endlessly. They suffer even when they don’t know they are suffering. But luckily they don’t suffer every single minute of the day. Sometimes when they stop and smell the roses they forget themselves sufficiently enough that for one exquisite moment they are a Buddha. Unfortunately, our biology and our training makes us neglect to pay attention to such moments of enlightenment. Biology and life training requires us to pay attention to our desires. Me! Me! Me! Yes, we can buy the fancy car, but what buying the car can’t buy us is happiness forever. So we have to buy another car or something as flashy. “I deserve it.” We are like athletes endlessly practising elaborate desires, how to want things we don’t have and probably can’t get. In effect we practice suffering. We hardly ever practice hanging on to those moments when we don’t suffer, those moments when we stop, the I goes away and we smell the roses.

How can we know when we are suffering? This might seem like a strange question. After all, how hard can it be for a person to know that they are suffering? Oddly enough most people don’t recognize all the occasions on which they suffer. Lots of times the whole culture around them tells them that what they are feeling is the most normal feeling and therefor good. The best example of this is our cultural attitude about anger. People think they have good reasons for being angry. They consider anger healthy. But anger is always an indication of suffering. What is there to be angry about? Did someone do something so very terrible to you? If they did, they only did so because they were suffering. People get angry because they suffer (suffering is so unfair). Then they get the strange notion that the cure for their suffering is to project anger onto the world. Maybe they hit you with mean words or sharp stones. But anger can be pretty contagious. So, in turn, you get angry back at them for being so mean. But anger feels awful, it stresses us out. And if you get angry enough, you might think you should hit back really hard (family disturbances, muggings in the street, murders, wars). But think about how you might react if someone had a contagious disease and you or a loved one caught it from them. It would be ludicrous to be angry at the ill person. What if the suffering that causes violence is not a malicious symptom of EVIL, but is simply an emotional disease, a spiritual cancer? When suffering is understood to be a disease, it becomes unnecessary to react with anger. Attempting at finding a cure would be more appropriate.

We get angry at the 911 terrorists who killed so many people. And 911 was a terrible thing to have happened. But think of how psychologically messed up the terrorists must have been, how much suffering their lives must have contained if they thought the only way out was to kill themselves, take thousands with them and thereby make so many people grieve the loss of loved ones. A little suffering begetting more suffering which was used to rationalize a war that is still causing suffering.

We can call up endless examples of people who thought they were doing the good but were merely projecting their suffering out onto the world, whether that suffering be greed, fear, anger, hatred or any other of the so-called deadly sins. I like to generalize the statement ‘suffering exists’, and understand it to speak about all the unpleasant emotions we cling too.

Later, after a post or two, I’ll do the next Noble* Truth: Desires are the cause of suffering.

*No, we don’t mean aristocratic. Maybe we should call the four noble truths, ‘The Truth About Suffering’, or ‘The Nature of Suffering’. Sounds more democratic.


So that you know, I intend to post here once a week, with whatever I’ve got. Right now this will happen on irregular days as I am in the middle of a move of house. Wonderful chaos. Later, when my life gets settled, I’ll post on a specific day of the week.

A word about what I am going to be doing (I have to keep clarifying this until I know). My major question is, “What is zen in the west?” Every time I post, I will posit some relevant question that I will try to answer (in an unavoidably intellectually manner) about some aspect of zen practice, trying to figure out what prevents zen from being more accessible to westerners. But as an anodyne to the head stuff, I will also include some emotional/anecdotal story that speaks to the post. At present I am one emotional post behind.

Last post I talked about the central zen concern for compassion. So where was my compassion a few days ago when at 4:30 in the morning I pulled on my housecoat and went out on the balcony to tell the yahoos in the next apartment to take their party indoors. I growled at them in my father’s disapproving voice.

It’s not that the fellow next door is a bad guy. He’s pleasant when not drunk. It’s only that after his girlfriend left him, and after a hard day in the restaurant industry, serving, he seems to need what he thinks is a little distraction. He gets rather boozed up with his friends. Every two weeks. Sometimes the parties go on until 4:00 the next afternoon, with a lot of yelling angrily and falling down.

So there the poor guy is, out on his balcony, surrounded by his friends, loosing face because he’s already been issued a letter from the management company telling him to stop waking people up or he’ll get evicted, and I’m complaining to him. He can only take it as a threat. He tries to explain his situation. But I’m not interested and tell him to, “Take it inside.” As I go back into my apartment, I hear him say. “Next time I see him in the hallway I’ll….” I cut the sound of his voice off, pulling the sliding door closed behind me.

My body is humming with adrenaline. Can’t get to sleep. Worried that I’ve increased the poor man’s suffering. I did him no good. He’ll be worried that he’s going to be evicted. And moving is a drag.

But the poor guy can’t help himself. At 6:30 in the morning he’s out on the balcony again, waking my partner this time, even though she’s wearing ear plugs and all our windows are closed.

Luckily I’m going to have tea with my friend the next morning ( a two person sangha). I know that when I tell him about the bump in the night the adrenaline will go away, I won’t have to carry the concern any longer. It’s sort of like going to confession. Blurt it all out and I’ll be absolved. My friend tells me that my compassion was in the way I spoke of the man, worried about his binge drinking, his situation, and in my awareness that my actions did not seem to help. But then, who knows. Maybe with me as the big bad boogeyman, he received enough of a shock that when he sobered up he might have figured out how to will pick himself up and really see. I don’t know. All I know is I have to constantly pick myself up and try to use the next situation as the dharma gate that will teach more about the state of my own compassion.

The Bodhisattva Vows

I thought I’d write down a few intellectual thoughts about that pesky set of Bodhisattva vows that so often frightens, angers, or disgusts many western people who first encounter organized zen practice. Wikipedia gives the four vows as:

I vow to liberate all beings, without number

I vow to uproot endless blind passions

I vow to penetrate dharma gates beyond measure

I vow to attain the way of the Buddha

I first encountered them as:

Beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them.

Illusions are endless, I vow to put an end to them.

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

Other iterations of the vows exist, but all of them present great difficulties to the western mind. It is very interesting to see beginning zen practitioners trying to deal with this set of vows. Some refuse to say them, not wanting to be hypocrites, I suppose. Some treat them as essentially meaningless. Some chant them with gusto, seeming to believe that finally they have found a belief system with some meat to it. All these reactions are to be expected as westerners like to take what is they read as exact descriptions of what is required, in this case a set of vows that one is about to go forth and forthwith do. But this is not necessarily true of the four vows when looked at from a zen perspective. Much of zen has been derived to make us give up thinking with our intellectual mind in order that we might more directly see the nature of reality. In effect, the Bodhisattva vows can be read as a koan, a seemingly paradoxical devise to make you realized your actual relationship to the universe. Taking the vows line by line:

    Beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them

Western responses to this idea range from the inability to conceive, “How can I be expected to save so many people”, to the heavily individualistic, “Let them save themselves.” But how can one save everyone, especially as most of us have a hard enough time saving ourselves? The heavy individualist might answer with, “It is every individual’s job to save their own self.” Given the number of beings in existence, it looks impossible to fulfill this vow, so why make it?

    Illusions are endless, I vow to put an end to them

Well, sure. Illusions are endless. Scientifically speaking, everything that we perceive is essentially an illusion, a construct of our own mind. A model is made up in our mind and we trick ourselves into thinking that what we are looking at is reality. But what reality actually looks like is beyond us. We can’t see in the x-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum, nor in the cosmic ray part, nor in the ultraviolet. Worse, we can’t see magnetic fields, nor gravity, nor the strong force, nor the weak force. Nor can we see dark matter and dark energy. Most of the universe is totally inaccessible to our senses. All we are looking at is a simulacrum, an illusion, a poor model of reality. But the meaning of ‘illusion’ in zen is more than this. Zen makes it quite clear that the “I” that we think is doing all the perceiving is itself an illusion. The big zen question is, “Who is beholding the I”. Jumping ahead for the moment, the answer is Mu. Or maybe the answer is Buddha nature. Or maybe there is no answer. But this does not satisfy the western mind. So far the western mind might think, “Well, first, we’ve already determined that you can’t save everyone, and according to zen there isn’t really an “I” that can do the saving, and if there isn’t an “I” doing the saving then how can us westerners do other than conclude that there isn’t any other “I” that needs to be saved?” But this does not mean that beings do not exist. It merely means that “I” doesn’t exist.” And indeed that is what zen is telling us. Our idea of “I” is itself an illusory thing. Although this seems to make the whole idea of the vows meaningless, maybe we are getting somewhere.

    Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them

First we have to define dharma. Dharma is translated variously into the words, duty, righteous path, law. The idea being that one vows to enter or follow one’s duty. In the present context the law or the duty is to uphold the presently made vows ( nice little recursion here). Given that the present vows require us to save all beings, then all instances of our interacting with any other being is a chance to enter a dharma gate, given that every interaction with another being is a chance to save them. As it is impossible to save every being directly, our only hope is that we might save a small part of each being we encounter and hope that somehow this little bit of saving will affect everyone else. This requires us to have the ability, at every moment in our lives, to act in a manner such that a being would be saved.

Western thought, in the guise of the quantum mechanics, tells us that every particle in the universe potentially extends throughout the whole of the universe. In a sense then, everything and everyone overlaps. As I read Buddhism, the only way to save anyone is through compassion, and the only way one can demonstrate or activate compassion is to act compassionately firstly toward oneself. If one is compassionate toward oneself then, automatically, one is compassionate toward all others in that if one is compassionate to oneself, one is not causing suffering for others. We are all familiar with the dictum that in order to love another one must first love oneself. Well, in order to be hateful toward another one must first be hateful to oneself.

    The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

If all the above is true, then it is unsurpassable and is therefore the Buddha’s way. The only change I would make to the last vow would be, “I vow to realize it.”

So the vows can be read as a koan that tells us 1) that we must seek out who we are in order to become compassionate to all beings, and 2) the only way to do that is to demonstrate compassion to oneself. The trick here is that to be compassionate is to give up the illusion that there is a real self. The only thing that exists is a set of universal relationships the nature of which we cannot fathom with our terribly limited intellectual mind. Ah, but like all koans, knowing this with the intellectual mind is of no use. One must demonstrate.